Titus Andronicus: Essays and Questions
1. What is the reputation of Titus Andronicus today? Is it often performed, and with what degree of success?
Titus Andronicuswas popular in Shakespeare’s time and for many decades after that. But it fell out of favor in the Victorian age due in part to its sensational violence and horror. At a performance at London’s Old VIc theatre in 1923, the audience could not take all the horrors seriously and laughed when Tamora, Titus, and Saturnius were all killed within a few moments of each other. Today, Titus Andronicus does not enjoy a high reputation, and some people argue that had the play been written by anyone other than Shakespeare, it would have been forgotten a long time ago. However, it is still performed, and it is one of those plays that is often better seen than read. In his book, Shakespeare: A Life in Drama, Stanley Wells reported on a successful staging of the play at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, in 1987: “The play emerged as a far more deeply serious work than its popular reputation would have suggested, one that is profoundly concerned with both the personal and the social consequences of violence” (p. 76).
In recent years there have been several notable productions, including one in December 2011 at the Public Theater in New York City, directed by Michael Sexton.Charles Isherwood, reviewing the modern-dress production in the New York Times (December 13), described the play itself as“a careering pileup of gothic horrors in which great ingenuity is shown in the matter of violent murder.” Isherwood further comments that complex psychological interpretations of Shakespeare’s “conniving cartoons” is probably impossible, and the production did not attempt to do so. However, “In one of the more textured roles, Mr. Sanders [Jay O. Sanders] does strike a variety of notes, as his Titus moves from understated, humble warrior to dazed, grieving father to wily plotter of bloody vengeance.” The play was also staged in the spring of 2012, directed by Aaron Cromie at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre. Reviewing the production for Broad Street Review (Broadstreetreview.com), Robert Zaller noted that the director used only seven actors, with puppets “filling in for Roman spectators and scenes played in dumb show.” Zaller thought this device worked well. Stick figures were used “for the gruesome scene of Lavinia’s rape and her brothers’ entrapment in a pit, as in Greek Karaghiozis theater, with two-dimensional outlines projected against a white screen. [The director’s] device gets the staging done without the awkwardness of sinking actual performers into trap doors, while the abstract effect takes some of the edge off a scene that would be over the top even by modern slasher standards.”
2. How important are classical allusions to the play?
There are a large number of allusions to Greek and Roman myths in Titus Andronicus. Some commentators have remarked that Shakespeare seemed to want to demonstrate his own learning or knowledge of classical literature, and it appears that he expected his audience to recognize all the allusions. There are also a number of phrases that appear in Latin, untranslated, which Shakespeare no doubt intended his audience to understand but which a modern reader likely depends on notes in the book for comprehension. Examples include the lines from the Roman poet Horace, “Integer vitae, scelerisquepurus, Non egetMaurijaculis, necarcu,”that Titus sends to Chiron and Demetrius after he has conveyed weapons to them. It means, according to the translation in the Arden Shakespeare edition of the play, “the man who is upright in life and free from crime does not need the javelins or bow of the Moor.” It is Titus’s way of sending a coded message to the brothers.
Other classical allusions can be found throughout the play. Usually, a situation in which a character finds himself in, or observes in another, is compared to a parallel in classical literature. Often this is for rhetorical effect rather than something that a real person might say in such a situation. For example, when Martius falls into the pit in which the corpse of Bassianus has been thrown, he makes two classical allusions in the space of six lines, to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, and to Cocytus, a river in Hell (act 2, scene 3, lines 231-36). When Marcus first sees the mutilated Lavinia, he makes a long speech in which he makes two classical allusions, one to the rape of Philomel by Tereus (which is mentioned several times elsewhere in the play) and another to the Orpheus legend. There is little distinction made between characters in these classical allusions. Aaron the Moor, supposedly a barbarian, turns out to be a barbarian with a classical education, since in his very first speech,he makes an allusion to the Prometheus myth. In later plays, Shakespeare continued to use classical allusions but not quite with the frequency with which they occur in this play.
3. Did Shakespeare write Titus Andronicus?
Some commentators on the play have regarded it as so bad that they try to find reasons for not attributing it to Shakespeare. T.S. Eliot, for example, called it “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written, a play in which it is incredible that Shakespeare had any hand at all” (quoted by E. M. W. Tillyard in Shakespeare’s History Plays, p. 137). However, the play appears, attributed to Shakespeare, in the First Folio of his works published in 1623. There is also a contemporary reference, in 1598, to the play as being by Shakespeare. Despite this, many scholars, going back as far as the seventeenth century, have questioned whether the play is entirely by Shakespeare. Skepticism about Shakespeare’s authorship of the play continued in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, due in part to the low esteem in which the play was held as a work of drama. In the twentieth century, one of the most renowned Shakespearean scholars, John Dover Wilson, in his introduction to the Cambridge University Press edition of the play (first published in 1948), argued that the play was originally written by another Elizabethan dramatist, George Peele, and all but the first act was later revised by Shakespeare. InWilson’s view, Shakespeare did not write a single line of the first act of the play. Wilson found the act monotonous and “dramatically flat” and “full of parallels with the works of Peele.” The rest of the play Wilson attributed to Shakespeare’s revision of the original play. Another senior Shakespearean scholar, Frank Kermode, in his introduction to the play in The Riverside Shakespeare (first published 1974) thought that Wilson’s conjecture was probably correct, but he also believed that other theories, including Shakespeare as the sole author, were also possible. It is likely that the authorship question surrounding Titus Andronicus may never be settled beyond a reasonable doubt.
4. What was the political relevance of the play for Elizabethan audiences?
The Elizabethans appear to have had great relish for the sensational spectacle provided by the revenge play; the more atrocities and blood, the better, it seems. The plays were staged with as much realism as the Elizabethans could manage, and included vials of red ink and also animal’s blood. But the Elizabethans were also good listeners and knew how to pay attention to spoken words; they were used to listening to long sermons in church, and the written word did not then have the primacy it later attained. Shakespeare’s plays almost always contained food for thought, and in addition to the no doubt enjoyable mayhem created by Titus, Tamora, Aaron, Chiron, Demetrius, and company, there were also scenes that presented political issues that would have been of interest to the average Elizabethan. The first and last acts are the most relevant in this respect, because they deal with the question of legitimate political authority. At the beginning of the play, the emperor has died and there are two claimants for the throne, Saturnius, the late emperor’s eldest son, and Bassianus, the younger son. Titus Andronicus, having refused the crown himself, ensures that it is bestowed upon Saturnius, thus upholding the notion of primogeniture, to which the Elizabethans adhered in matters of royal succession, however problematic that might be in the case of Queen Elizabeth, who had no children. (In primogeniture the eldest male child has the right of inheritance.) Having bestowed the crown on Saturnius, Titus promises his loyalty to the new emperor, ensuring (or so it might be hoped at first) a peaceful transition of power and a stable society as a result. At the end of the play, Lucius is the only serious candidate for emperor, since Saturnius died without an heir. His speech about his desire to restore peace to Rome is preceded by that of his uncle, Marcus Andronicus, who stresses the importance of Rome avoiding civil war. Elizabethan playgoers would all have known of England’s Wars of the Roses, the dynastic struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster that took place between 1455 and 1485, when the Tudor dynasty, of which Elizabeth was a member, was established. They would have understood the importance of these final speeches as they contemplated the vexed question of who would succeed to the throne at the death of Elizabeth.
5. Titus Andronicus is the earliest of Shakespeare’s tragedies. What does it have in common with the great tragedies written more than a decade later?
Those familiar with Shakespeare will quickly realize on exposure to Titus Andronicus that this play is not the equal of later tragedies such as Hamlet and King Lear, which explore profound issues about the human condition in ways that were beyond the skill of the young dramatist who wrote Titus Andronicus. Nonetheless, there are some elements in the earlier play that look forward to their more illustrious successors.
Hamlet is also a revenge play that revolves around the murder of one of the protagonist’s family. Like Titus, Hamlet pretends madness in order to best accomplish his revenge. Hamlet is also known for delaying his revenge, and this was a common element in revenge plays of the period, although it is not really noticeable in Titus. Once Titus has all the information he needs, he moves with all due speed.
The character Titus also has some elements in common with King Lear. Both are men who are used to exercising authority but both are also given to rash and impulsive behavior that leads to disaster. Lear banishes his youngest daughter and behaves in a peremptory manner toward those around him. Titus impulsively kills one of his sons, Mutius, whose only sin was to oppose him in the matter of Lavinia’s marriage. Titus also quarrels with his other sons, who wantto bury Mutius in the family vault. Like King Lear, Titus’s griefs pile up, one upon another, and in anguished speeches hegivesexpression to his tumultuous grief at the loss of his two sons, executed by the emperor, and the mutilation of his daughter, Lavinia. This towering grief resembles that of Lear, who loses everything that made up his life as king: crown (which he willingly renounced), family, servants, home, and even his reason. While Titus pretends to madness and may even be slightly touched by it, King Lear loses his wits entirely, until he is restored to his right mind in a reconciliation scene with his youngest daughter, Cordelia. There is no equivalent of that in Titus Andronicus, however, as Titus’s miseries just go on accumulating.
Another character in Titus Andronicus looks forward to later incarnations. This is Aaron, who takes such exuberant delight in evil that for some people, he is the highlight of the whole play, his evil deeds notwithstanding. He is Shakespeare’s first attempt at a line of villains that includes Richard III in the play of that name, Iago in Othello, and Edmund in King Lear, all of whom plot their way ruthlessly toward their goals, just as Aaron does in Titus.